How asleep to God many are

Frances writes on the Readings for this coming Advent Sunday:- Advent is a time when we Christians prepare for the great event of the incarnation, the coming to be in time of Christ. In a discussion groups a number of us reflected on the fact, that despite the many hours of input we ourselves have received, and the time we have expended on our children and those of others, for many devotion to the faith seems limited to a desultory ‘I go to Mass on Sundays’, which is something which the majority don’t really engage or understand. Or the say ‘I go because otherwise my Mum yells at me!’ Small wonder then that our Readings strike such a harsh and apparently admonishing tone. Many of us will also need this during the run-up to Christmas, when we all become so absorbed in the preparations for the festivities that we don’t take time to ponder its deeper meaning.

It appears that Jesus was well aware of this tendency even among his closest followers. (Matthew 24:37-44). In Matthew’s Gospel ,Jesus has engaged in increasingly bitter acrimony with scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish leaders; and the hostility between him and them appeared quite irreconcilable. Matthew’s Gospel marks this all the way through by describing Jesus as a ‘scandal’. By this time in the Gospel he was already in Jerusalem for what would be his death; he has attacked the temple and its corrupt officials; lamented the destruction of the temple and city which was becoming increasingly likely. It also appears that even those closest to him would fail to recognise his significance when his three-time predicted passion occurred. It is within this context that Jesus reminded his audience of past failures in attention and fidelity, with his reference to their inattention before the Flood. Since this too failed to cut any ice he then presented them with a small but witty vignette on watchfulness, taken from daily life: the cartoon picture of the attentive householder (the house-despot in Greek – a sign of priorities if ever we needed one) ever vigilant against the incursions of a thief.

Perhaps Jesus deliberately used this amusing picture from daily life, to remind his original hearers and us of the lengths to which we all go to care for our ‘own’, our possessions. It is thus just one further sad reflection on our inattention to the needs of our eternal souls and our preparedness for the coming of the Son of Man. At the very least, no Christian can ever kid him/her self that they were right with God, or even organised as an ambassador for the gospel. What we all share is our utter incomprehension of the magnitude of the gift God is about to bestow on us, and our utter unworthiness of it. Our Gospel therefore hits out equally against the Pelagian – arrogant of his/her moral probity, as well as the fickle and clueless mass of the faithful.

With this picture of such unpromising material before us, we can sympathise with St Paul (Romans 13:11-14) and his call to the tiny Christian communities of Rome to ‘wake-up’. Certainly Paul does spend a great deal of effort and ink in many of his letters calling on Christians to ‘clean up their act’ – their moral lives; but we have to remember the context in which this occurs. Paul was and remained a Jew, and as he remarked in one letter according to the requirements of the Jewish Law his life was faultless. Yet such was the extent of divine grace as met in Christ, that he realised that for all his moral probity, his faultless following of the law, it could not reconcile him to the Father. This was and remains the action of Christ alone. Decent behaviour, moral living, is therefore merely one sign of our having understood something of the extent of the self-gift of Jesus to his creation. It cannot earn us life with God, which indeed is promised to saint and sinner alike. Paul would tussle with these difficult questions in Romans Chapters 7-8 where he recognised that for all his law-righteousness, he was still utterly estranged from God, and could only rely on grace, the action of Christ redeeming the creation he loved into being, and loved to the end.

But, many will say, our Old Testament Reading (Isaiah 2:1-5) strikes such a positive note. Does it indeed? First Isaiah was written in the 8th century BCE as the Assyrians devastated the Northern kingdom of Israel. This has been described by one historian as ‘spectacularly brutal’, something of the IS of their age. These warrior-traders carried all before them. Isaiah actually wrote the piece, we have taken out of context, as a clarion call for religious reform as he saw his nation going to pot, lacking devotion to God or careful management of the state; and we best know his savage recriminations of this state of affairs as Isaiah 5, the Song of the Vineyard. First Isaiah wrote from his love and faith in God, most definitely not from any conviction that his nation had got things sorted. Indeed, if anything, his Book is a tragic indictment of his people, yet redolent with his faith and hope in the redeemer of Israel. How important it can be not to take things out of context which, in a rather ragged way, is what this entire meditation has been about.